Sunday, April 26, 2009

James Ellroy liked my hat, and more from the Festival of Books

It's the last weekend in April, and that means I spent my day at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books

The Festival was blessed with pleasant weather for a change (which was a big relief to those of us who suffered through last year's hellacious scorcher). I did plenty of shopping, and attended a publishing panel, and picked up information about the Sisters in Crime mystery writers group. It was, as usual, a treat to commune with so many like-minded book lovers.

The undoubted highlight was a panel by Mr. James Ellroy,  author of L. A. Confidential, Brown's Requiem, The Big Nowhere, Clandestine, and many others. Mr. Ellroy looked extremely dapper in a gray seersucker suit with bow tie and a handkerchief in his breast pocket, and was full-on entertaining as he sang the praises of his publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, and in particular the Knopf Borzoi mascot (trust me, it all made sense at the time). After the panel I brought a copy of American Tabloid for him to sign. He said, "Like the hat!" (I wore my black fedora), and I told him that I had recently finished my first mystery manuscript and that I got inspiration for it from his books*, particularly The Big Nowhere and L. A. Confidential. Mr. Ellroy seemed rather moved by this, and signed the book with "Congrats!"  Mr. Ellroy, you are one of the good ones, and I'll certainly be on the lookout for your new book, Blood's A Rover, this September.

As for shopping, I picked up Ellroy's Because the Night, along with The Grifters by Jim Thompson, Hollywood Station by Joseph Wambaugh, Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison (which I'll always think of as Stop Pushing! Stop Pushing! thanks to a Harlan Ellison joke), Saving Angelfish by Michele Matheson, and the coffee-table book Horror Cinema (which I can't actually leave on the coffee table because it's full of squicky pictures). This ought to beef up the to-be-read shelves a bit.

All this and I got to meet up with my friend from Readerville and BookBalloon, the sweet and ever-lovely Lynn! She looked like she was having a very good time. Big hello to Lynn (and thanks for getting me the panel tickets, which went on sale when I was busy last Sunday). It was good to see you!

*Mr. Ellroy's books were particularly instructive in how to introduce characters who have plenty of backstory. Instead of serving the backstory up in a big glut, he shows the characters doing interesting things, and drops hints of past unsavoriness. This intrigues the reader, and later Mr Ellroy provides the details of the backstory. I used this technique in my manuscript Undertow, and also touched on themes of fundamentally flawed characters that are always in Mr. Ellroy's books.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Word count odometer: 80,000

And the story keeps rolling along. I owe it all to caffeine, no TV, and no social life!

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Damn it feels good to be a fangirl

This past Sunday I had much fun at the Fangoria Weekend of Horror convention at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Unfortunately I was only able to attend one day, and therefore missed Sam Raimi (among others). But nevertheless I enjoyed myself. The highlight of the day was chatting with actress Caroline Williams of Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2, and attending the subsequent panel that reunited Williams with director Tobe Hooper and actors Bill Moseley and Bill Johnson - all of them were friendly and sweet. 

That seems to be par for the course - the people who write/act in/compose/direct the most out-there stuff are usually the nicest and most down to earth.

Speaking of which - I also did some shopping, which included a poster for the movie Phantasm, which I got signed by the ever-awesome Reggie Bannister. I also got a book (Nightmare USA: The Untold Story of the Exploitation Independents), a poster for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, some Gothy jewelry and some Phantom of the Paradise buttons for my fangirl jacket. 

And the fun doesn't stop! Next Sunday I'll be the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, held at the UCLA campus. Look for me shopping a lot, and attending the panel of that crazyyyyy fellow James "Demon Dog" Ellroy. 

Good times!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Summarizing the plot

If there's one thing I hate, it's having to come up with an answer to the question, "What's your book about?" Some people can distill an entire book down to one pithy sentence - I am not one of these people. It's especially difficult with non-genre stories ("See, there are these people, and stuff happens, and...").

For a humorous take on the subject, check out the Uncomfortable Plot Summaries posting at My favorites are for Serenity (Men fight for possession of scantily clad, mentally ill teenage girl), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Father becomes more involved in teenage daughter's life), and Sophie's Choice (Mother loves one of her kids way more than the other one). Check it out, and be sure to read the comments for more summaries.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Writing craft: Constructive criticism

Just got back my manuscript Undertow with comments from one of my Constant Readers, my good friend Erik. Not only did he read the story and give me his overall opinion, but he marked up the manuscript as well, calling out things he liked, and things that need work.

I cannot stress enough the value of this. No writer can be an impartial judge of his or her work. For example, the writer can't always be a good judge of  a scene's effectiveness. Does the foreshadowing work? Is that scene that's supposed to be scary actually scary? Will anyone but the writer give a damn about any of the characters? And let's not forget those odd little typos that the writer's radar doesn't catch because the writer knew what they meant to say but didn't communicate it clearly enough to the typing fingers.

Sending one's work to friends or family for review isn't always easy. Writers have a good deal of emotional investment in their work (they should, anyway). When a reader points out a problem in a manuscript, anything beyond a typo or spacing glitch can raise the writer's hackles. ("I spent months on this novel! I stayed up late working on it while you plebes were eating bonbons and watching Cops! Who are you to say my story arc is cliched!")  

But as soothing as it might be to the ego to huffily reject criticism, that stance results in a poorer manuscript. The right Constant Readers will find the problems that the writer doesn't see because he or she is too close to the manuscript, whether those are factual errors or problems with the character arcs.  It's well worth the temporary ego blow, because when those same Constant Readers tell you something is good, they mean it, and you know they mean it.

A writer once told me that she knew she'd put in too many scenes set at the breakfast table when one of her constant readers remarked, "These people sure do eat a lot of pancakes, don't they?" 

One caveat: A writer doesn't have to include every change that every constant reader asks for. If you  have 10 readers and 1 says that X should be more Y, that's a minority opinion and it's up to the writer to make that change. However, if 9 out of 10 constant readers say that X should be Y, then it behooves the writer to make the change.

Not every constant reader enjoys her work. But I hope she's the exception rather than the rule.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Review: Four Flies on Grey Velvet

My review of Dario Argento's Four Flies on Grey Velvet proves that it takes more than a nifty title to make a good movie. Check it out.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Word count odometer, and using things I've overheard

Last night the word count odometer on the work in progress rolled over to 70,000 words!  Yes! Progress! It's been a slow few weeks so this was particularly delightful. 

The weekend's writing was also noteworthy for another reason. I keep a mental filing cabinet of interesting or wacky things I've overheard people (primarily but not limited to friends and family) say.  Few things make me happier than using one of these lines, and it's especially fun when a friend recognizes the dialogue in question (i.e., the line "Women. Bitches. All of them!" in my book Reckoning). 

Anyway, one of these overheards has been in my head since college, and I finally found a situation and character to say it. 

So I celebrated all this with a Reese's peanut butter egg. (My guilty pleasure every Easter.)

The overheard line, by the way, is: "Yeah, he thinks he's such a socialist, but he buys Twinkies at the grocery store just like everyone else." (Originally spoken by a fellow student, referring to our Poli Sci professor.)

Friday, April 3, 2009

Things you wish you could experience for the first time again

Over at The Onion's AV Club, there's a roundtable where the writers talk about the books, movies, TV shows, music, and more that they wish they could experience for the first time again. Read it here.

Now, I love to rewatch movies over and over again, and re-reading books endlessly is how I justify my big ol' library. (Just the fiction alone you can see listed at LibraryThing under "KCozy"). But certain things leave their mark on you the first time in a way that can never be recaptured. Here's a few of mine (but ask on a different day and you may get different answers).

Poem: T. S. Eliot's The Hollow Men. Read it in high school and had such an epiphany. One of those "This is IT!" moments.

Movies: Oh, so many to choose from, but two that stand out are Terry Gilliam's Brazil, which literally left me breathless, or Peter Weir's The Last Wave, which I saw at an early age and which warped my brain forever.

Novel: Again, it's hard to narrow the choices down. For fantasy, C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia is one choice, though I have to give a shout-out to the underrated Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander. Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye gave me a shock of recognition for its portrayal of Mean Girls and the damage they can do. For horror, it's Stephen King's The Shining; for mystery, James Ellroy's L. A. Confidential; for dystopian fiction, it's George Orwell's 1984.  For short stories, Ray Bradbury's "The Aqueduct" literally made me scream the first time I read it.

TV: Any number of Twilight Zone episodes spring to mind. But what I'd most love to re-experience is the first episode of Blackadder Season 2. The first minute in this clip made me laugh so hard I nearly hurt myself, the first time I saw it.